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      Experimental evidence for compositional syntax in bird calls

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          Abstract

          Human language can express limitless meanings from a finite set of words based on combinatorial rules (i.e., compositional syntax). Although animal vocalizations may be comprised of different basic elements (notes), it remains unknown whether compositional syntax has also evolved in animals. Here we report the first experimental evidence for compositional syntax in a wild animal species, the Japanese great tit ( Parus minor). Tits have over ten different notes in their vocal repertoire and use them either solely or in combination with other notes. Experiments reveal that receivers extract different meanings from ‘ABC' (scan for danger) and ‘D' notes (approach the caller), and a compound meaning from ‘ABC–D' combinations. However, receivers rarely scan and approach when note ordering is artificially reversed (‘D–ABC'). Thus, compositional syntax is not unique to human language but may have evolved independently in animals as one of the basic mechanisms of information transmission.

          Abstract

          Animal vocalizations contain distinct elements, but it is not clear whether they convey combined meanings in the same way as human speech. Here, Suzuki et al. show that Japanese great tits can combine different elements of vocal signals so that they have compositional syntax.

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          Allometry of alarm calls: black-capped chickadees encode information about predator size.

          Many animals produce alarm signals when they detect a potential predator, but we still know little about the information contained in these signals. Using presentations of 15 species of live predators, we show that acoustic features of the mobbing calls of black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapilla) vary with the size of the predator. Companion playback experiments revealed that chickadees detect this information and that the intensity of mobbing behavior is related to the size and threat of the potential predator. This study demonstrates an unsuspected level of complexity and sophistication in avian alarm calls.
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            Language evolution: semantic combinations in primate calls.

            Syntax sets human language apart from other natural communication systems, although its evolutionary origins are obscure. Here we show that free-ranging putty-nosed monkeys combine two vocalizations into different call sequences that are linked to specific external events, such as the presence of a predator and the imminent movement of the group. Our findings indicate that non-human primates can combine calls into higher-order sequences that have a particular meaning.
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              Pseudoreplication in playback experiments, revisited a decade later

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                Author and article information

                Journal
                Nat Commun
                Nat Commun
                Nature Communications
                Nature Publishing Group
                2041-1723
                08 March 2016
                2016
                : 7
                Affiliations
                [1 ]Department of Evolutionary Studies of Biosystems, SOKENDAI (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies) , Kamiyamaguchi 1560-35, Hayama, Kanagawa 240-0193, Japan
                [2 ]Department of Life Science, Rikkyo University , Nishi-Ikebukuro 3-34-1, Toshima, Tokyo 171-8501, Japan
                [3 ]Department of Ecology and Genetics, Uppsala University , Norbyvägen 18D, SE-752 36 Uppsala, Sweden
                [4 ]Anthropological Institute and Museum, University of Zurich , Winterthurerstrasse 190, 8057 Zürich, Switzerland
                Author notes
                Article
                ncomms10986
                10.1038/ncomms10986
                4786783
                26954097
                d1d5b973-b5f3-4b82-b992-b66d6c63a55d
                Copyright © 2016, Nature Publishing Group, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. All Rights Reserved.

                This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in the credit line; if the material is not included under the Creative Commons license, users will need to obtain permission from the license holder to reproduce the material. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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